“Keeping Abreast of Internet Chatter Not The Same As Bearing Witness”

The Internet (and, of course, Twitter) is changing (ruining? improving?) foreign reporting, observes Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times “Week In Review.”

Until fairly recently, Giridharadas notes, “the vast populations that foreign correspondents wrote about remained for the most part oblivious to what was being said about them.” Now, there’s “no reporting behind a nation’s back,” as the headline to the piece puts it. And that’s potentially good news for reporters and readers alike because:

“Here” readers are better watchdogs than “there” readers. They catch errors that a Western editor simply cannot. They also form a check on the exoticizing impulse. Certain lenses for seeing a country sell easily overseas: India’s poverty, China’s repression. But a battalion of bloggers is raring to point out the obvious and hackneyed, and they keep us on our toes.

Challenges for reporters raised by this “momentous, overlooked shift in the world” include, Giridharadas writes, sources less willing to tell foreign correspondents —“someone soon to leave” —the things “they would not tell a local journalist or official.” And:

The feedback loops also threaten a correspondent’s ability to bring home the juiciest meat, as Nicholas Kristof, another foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, observed in an e-mail message. Blogging and Twittering and instantaneous publication empower not only readers, but also those most threatened by daring journalism. A column he wrote about Iran, he said, published while he was still there and read by the authorities, led to his temporary detention at the airport.

Another challenge for reporters:

[I]n this new world it is easy to become addicted to the debate one stirs. The “most e-mailed” lists, the blogs, the online comments — these can tempt one to write what draws the most praise or at least the most “noise,” as [Roger] Cohen [“a veteran foreign correspondent-turned columnist for the New York Times] put it…

In the 1990s, Mr. Cohen chronicled, in person, the horrors that accompanied Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Today, correspondents doing such work can find their time being sucked away by the profusion online of viewpoints and images and tweets from the scene, which multiply and demand attention. But keeping abreast of the Internet chatter is not the same as bearing witness.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.